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Association makes case for bringing drag racing back to LI

John Cozzali stands next to his 2002 Chevy

John Cozzali stands next to his 2002 Chevy Cavalier race car in front of his Mastic home. Cozzali, 60, both heads the Long Island Drag Racing Club and formed a Facebook group, Long Island Needs a Dragstrip. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The engines roar to life with teeth-rattling horsepower. The ground begins to shake as white exhaust smoke billows from the custom-made hot rods that burn rubber at speeds of more than 200 mph.

Sanctioned drag racing left Long Island when the Westhampton Roadway closed 15 years ago because of money problems and neighbors' complaints.

Now, a national trade group, the U.S. Motorsports Association, is helping fans make the case that Long Island presents a "one-of-a-kind opportunity" for a drag strip.

In a 22-page white paper, the association lays out the benefits of a track — from revving Long Island's economy to providing family-friendly fun to reducing illegal street racing. 

"It's past time to bring racing back to Long Island," said John Cozzali, 60, of Mastic, who both heads the Long Island Drag Racing Club and formed a Facebook group, Long Island Needs a Dragstrip, that counts more than 16,000 members. 

"You can do practically any sport or hobby that you want on Long Island," he said. "Except drag racing. There's no place for us to go."

Still, there are plenty of roadblocks to putting a new track on the Island: carving a space in a crowded entertainment market, finding the land, coming up with investors and getting buy-in from the neighbors. 

Steve Kuhl lives near an old airstrip at Enterprise Park in Calverton that racing fans think would be perfect for a track. He begs to differ.

The earsplitting noise, the traffic jams, the fumes. Calverton is quiet, rural — and Kuhl wants to keep it that way.

"The last thing this community needs is a drag strip," said Kuhl, a retired schoolteacher who leads a civic group, EPCAL Watch, that monitors the property. "There are a lot of retirement communities in the area and the noise would be a big problem."

Revenue driver

Cozzali is not only a fan. He competes, putting the pedal to the metal in a 2002 Chevy Cavalier Pro Stock. 

These days, he and others in his circle travel as far as North Carolina and Tennessee for races. They buy gas. They eat out. They go shopping. They stay overnight.

The bottom line is that they spend a lot on those weekends — money that they argue shouldn't be leaving the Island. 

And that's the big takeaway from the association's assessment: Sanctioned drag racing would pump nearly $18 million a year into the local economy, based on spending by fans and racing teams at 17 tracks across the country. 

The big reasons: lots of people and no other drag strip within nearly 100 miles.

More than 33 million people — roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population — live within 150 miles of the Island. And the nearest track is Island Dragway, roughly two hours away in Great Meadows, N.J.

Based on population and the region's interest in racing, the association figures a new track operating year-round would draw anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 spectators for a race and would be open 84 days for races and other activities like flea markets and concerts.

The total number of bodies through the turnstiles every year: more than 328,000. Admission would vary by event, but the price for racing can run as low as $10.

"This is really low-cost family entertainment," said Shawn Stewart, the association's executive director, pointing out that most tracks let fans in before races to check out the cars and chat with the drivers. 

The level of track would be the equivalent of a minor league team in baseball, though racing draws more out-of-town visitors who also spend more, according to the association.

To calculate the economic impact, the association reviewed spending by 17 similar-sized tracks nationwide as well as what fans, racing teams and even the locals spent both at the track and in the surrounding communities. 

Tracks, for example, on average, put nearly $750,000 every year into the community by providing jobs, supporting caterers, hiring accountants and attorneys, paying taxes and an assortment of other spending, the report contends.

And race teams spend a lot of money, mostly at restaurants and hotels. Often, they tack on a few days before or after a race to take in the sights. In a year, racers lay out about $7.4 million: $3 million for hotels; $2.3 million at grocery and retail stores; $1.1 million on eating out and just under $1 million for fuel, the report said.

"Race teams should be viewed as small businesses coming into town, regularly consuming all types of services and adding to Long Island tourism," the report said.

Add in the cash that fans spread around and the annual spending figure skyrockets — to $17.7 million.

Many tracks also play host to fairs, concerts, car shows, flea markets, first-responder training and more, which would mean another 108,000 visitors spending as much as $3.1 million, the association said.

But skeptics point out that Long Island is far different from other locations because competition is already stiff for entertainment dollars. Broadway musicals. Mixed martial arts and hockey at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum. The Mets at Citi Field. The Long Island Ducks at Bethpage Ballpark.

Drag racing fans are devoted and usually willing to drive for hours to find a track, said Victor Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

He doubts a track on Long Island would face significant competition from baseball in the Bronx and Flushing or the Islanders at the Coliseum. 

"I suspect drag racing is not something that appeals very much to the casual fan and that tracks count on serious fans that come back again and again," he said. "They are counting on that built-in audience."

Suffolk County Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) is with the fans. He serves on an ad hoc legislative committee formed to identify potential sites.

A drag strip, he said, would be "a tremendous benefit to the economy and the community."

"Now, it's just a matter of finding a place and an investor," he said.

Winding road 

Long Island has had a long love affair with motor sports. The demolition derby was even born on the Island, at Islip Speedway in 1958.

At one point, as many as six tracks dotted the landscape from Huntington to Westhampton. Now, only a single track survives — the Riverhead Raceway, a paved quarter-mile oval track with a figure-8 course. 

The drag strips went away — one by one, faltering to economic pressures and neighbors peeved about noise, traffic and pollution.

To build a track today would take a chunk of land and deep pockets, industry experts said. And there's still the matter of the neighbors. 

A developer would need 100 to 250 acres to build a quarter-mile track, seating, garages and other buildings, industry experts said.

And upfront construction costs would run about $18 million — and most likely would have to come from a private investor, the white paper said.

Finding a backer to put big bucks into a drag strip could be a tough sell when the land market is tight, Matheson said 

"In this economy, investors are flush with cash as compared to 10 years ago," he said. "But real estate prices are strong and investors are paying a premium for space. A drag strip takes up a lot of valuable real estate so I wouldn't expect a bargain."

In 2001, backers doing business under the name Calverton Motorsports Park offered $50 million to put a track on 200 acres at the old airstrip location that fans like so much. Community opposition stalled the deal, which would have included a half-mile drag strip, a 5/8-mile oval, a go-cart track and a 2-mile-long road racing course.

For fans, the site in Calverton seems perfect: a 7,000-foot runway at the 2,900-acre Enterprise Park, where aviation giant Northrop Grumman once assembled military aircraft, including the Navy's F-14 Tomcat.

All eight members of the Suffolk County legislative committee agree the old airstrip is the best spot because it isn't near any homes, according to Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague).

But the property isn't for sale — at least not now.

Riverhead Town is in contract to sell 1,643 acres at EPCAL — the rest is preserved for open space — to Calverton Aviation and Technology, a joint venture between Luminati Aerospace of Calverton and Canada-based developer Triple Five Group. The company plans to use more than 600 acres for a million-square-foot aviation and technology hub.

But the town is taking a second look at the $40 million deal after learning that Luminati Aerospace is being sued by a Connecticut company for allegedly failing to pay property taxes and defaulting on conditions related to a $10 million loan. Calverton Aviation and Technology didn't respond to requests for comment.

However the deal plays out, racing fans are hopeful that enough land will be left over for a track. 

"This would good for the county and good for the Town of Riverhead," said Dennis Quitoni, 76, who owns an auto shop in North Hempstead. "There is such a need for a drag strip for real racing enthusiasts."

Michele McNaughton is a fan, too, and she agrees with Quitoni that a track would be good for Long Island. Where they part company on is the location.

McNaughton is against putting a track so close to Calverton National Cemetery, where her son was buried. James McNaughton was killed in Iraq in 2005. 

She points to Arlington National Cemetery, just outside Washington, D.C., where so many of the nation's war dead have been buried. 

"You would never build a drag strip outside Arlington so what's the difference with Calverton?" asked McNaughton, president of the North Fork chapter of American Gold Star Mothers. "I am not against drag racing. I would love a track on Long Island. But they need to find another spot."

The pushback isn't deterring Cozzali, the competitive driver. He's certain that drag racing will return to Long Island.

"I'm confident that we are going to get something built," Cozzali said. "There's such a passion for the sport. It's time."

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